The Highland Clearances
The day will come when the big sheep will put the plough up in the rafters . . .
The big sheep will overrun the country till they meet the northern sea . . . in the end, old men shall return from new lands.
The Brahan Seer ( 17th century Highland Prophet)
In the 1780s Scotland was uneasy. The Leslies of Rogart lived through turbulent times as did others in Sutherlandshire. Sutherlandshire was not the base of the Leslie Clan who came from Aberdeenshire in the Lowlands. They may have moved north in the early seventeenth century when the Covenanters rebelled against Charles the First in the Battles of Dunbar and Hamilton or even earlier when the Scots were defeated at Flodden, 1615.
Many Scots were unhappy with the Union of 1707, uniting England and Scotland. They rose up unsuccessfully in 1715. They rose again in 1745 but lost in the Battle of Culloden.
After Culloden, the wearing of Highland dress including tartan and kilt was banned.
Bonnie Prince Charlie went over the “friendly Main” – the English Channel and did never come back again. In 1747 Britain passed the Heritable Jurisdictions Act decreeing that Scots who refused loyalty to the Crown would lose their lands by forfeit.
Between 1780 to 1854 the Seer’s prophesy came true.
In the 1780s the landlords began to evict their tenants to make way for sheep. The Highlands were cleared of an estimated 90 per cent of their small farms or crofts. Displaced Highlanders went on hellships to America, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Not all the hellships arrived.
While some who left Scotland had means, most of the Scots had little more than they could carry. Although some were skilled tradesmen, most were simple crofters. Many only spoke Gaelic. Some have described the Highland Clearances as an ethnic cleansing; others say that it was only about money. The landowners could make more profit from wool than from the rents of their tenants.
Many Highlanders joined new Regiments raised to fight in America, Ireland and later in the Napoleonic Wars.
The refugees from the Highland Clearances were not the first Scots to settle in Ontario. In 1778 Loyalists who had fought in the American Revolution against Washington and Highland soldiers and their families arrived in Upper Canada near Akwesasne in 1778 and 1779. However, many more came with the Highland Clearances.
1785 was the official beginning of the Highland Clearances. In the 1780s Donald Cameron of Lochiel began to clear his family lands which ran from Loch Leven to Loch Arkaig. Refugees from the Highland Clearances began to come to Canada. Father Alexander Scotus MacDonell arrived at Glengarry, eastern Ontario, in 1786 “with his whole parish”. (Wm. Perkins Bull, From Macdonell to McGuigan, Toronto: The Perkins Bull Foundation, 1939)
When the Napoleonic Wars began, the price of wool rose dramatically while the price of the beef from the crofters’ cattle fell. One shepherd, alone but for his hard-working collies, could manage sheep on as much land as 12 to 16 families of crofters had worked.
Meanwhile the Scottish elite were running up debts to support a Regency life style, far away from the tiny crofts or farms who paid to support their “lairds” with the little they earned raising cattle.
James Hunter, author of ‘The Making of the Crofting Community’, described the situation:
Many chiefs were as at home in Edinburgh or Paris as they were in the Highlands, and French or English rolled off their tongue as easily as – perhaps more easily than – Gaelic. Moreover, while away from his clan the typical chief, conscious since childhood of his immensely aristocratic status in the Highland society whence he came, felt obliged to emulate or even surpass, the lifestyle of the courtiers and nobles with whom he mingled. And it was at this point that the 18th century chief’s two roles came into irreconcilable conflict with one another. As a southern socialite he needed more and more money. As a tribal patriarch he could do very little to raise it.
James Hunter, The Making of the Crofting Community, John Donald, 2nd Revised edition, 2006 quoted on line and accessed June 13, 2016 at http://www.clannada.org/highland.php
Hungry for more and more money, the large land-owners of Scotland turned out their tenants in larger and larger numbers. This almot severed the bonds between the clan chiefs and the crofters, but instead of blaming their lairds they blamed those who did the actual burning and pillaging of the crofts. The Highland Clearances have never been forgotten: in Scotland or by their many descendents in Nova Scotia, Ontario and other Canadian provinces. Canadian author William Perkins Bull recalled:
…the country north of the Tweed became practically one huge sheep-walk”.
Bull, From Macdonell to McGuigan.
Berrydale in Caithness was just one of the estates in Scotland owned by the Marquess of Stafford who later became the Duke of Sutherland.
James Loch, factor or estate manager, for the Sutherlands
The Canadian Boat Song captures some of the sorrow of the Highlanders:
Many came to Canada to escape the Clearances and were not always happy with what they found.
The Crown granted Colonel Thomas Talbot, an Irishman of good family, 5,000 acres of land on the condition of conveying fifty acres out of every two hundred to an actual settler. He was also commissioned addition grants that covered in all about 28 townships with 618,000 acres of the Western Peninsula along the Lake Erie shore, south of the Thames River to Lake Erie and from Windsor in the West to all most Long Point in the East. He established himself on the bluff of Lake Erie, at what is now Port Talbot. The irascible Irish Colonel became a tyrant in his own petty kingdom. St. Thomas and Talbotville, Ontario, are named for him.
The Colonel Talbot Settlement was the whole of the county of Elgin and part of Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Norfolk Counties.
His style of settlement was opposed by many, including government officials. Fees were not being paid to the government in the appropriate time frame as Talbot’s power was increasing. The only record of settlement could be found in Talbot’s “Castle” on maps with pencilled in names of settlers. He could easily rub a settlers name off the map for reasons including personal dislike or political views. The land would then be given to someone else, with the government not being involved at all. Sometimes years and even decades would go by between the initial settlement and the issue of any legal papers to the settler, stating that the land was indeed theirs.
Alexander, known as “Alastair Mhor”, Macdonell (July 17, 1762 – January 14, 1840), was the first Roman Catholic bishop in Ontario, and a leader who brought his clansmen from Glengarry, Scotland to Glengarry, Ontario.
Macdonell was born Alexander McDonell in Glengarry, Scotland, in 1762. He was ordained at Valladolid and was devoted to his Catholic kinsmen and clan. When they were evicted in 1792 in the Highland Clearances, he led them to Glasgow where some found work in factories. When his efforts to settle them in Glasgow failed, The Macdonell formed them into a British regiment, the Glengarry Fencibles. He was appointed their chaplain, the first Catholic British Army chaplain in centuries.
At that time it was against the law at the time for a Catholic to be an army officer. When the regiment was disbanded Father Macdonell appealed to the Crown to grant his clan land in Canada. In 1804, the Government granted 160,000 acres (650 km²) in what is now Glengarry County. Macdonell came to Canada with his clan folk, founded churches and schools and organised the settlement. In 1812 he raised another regiment, the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles to defend Upper Canada against the Americans. Macdonell was conservative and got along well with the oligarchy that ran Upper Canada, the Family Compact. In 1819 he was made vicar Apostolic of Upper Canada. In 1826 Upper Canada became a diocese with Macdonell its bishop. Five years the British Government appointed Macdonell to the legislative council. He founded a seminary at Saint Raphael’s and a college at Kingston. He was not known for getting along well with his Irish Catholic parishioners. Macdonell died in Dumfries, Scotland, of pneumonia.
His local Scots clansmen called Macdonell Easbuig Mhor meaning The Big Bishop since he was six feet four inches tall and with a miter on his head looked like a giant. He sat on the Legislative Council and supported the Family Compact against the Rebels in 1837. He referred to red-headed and fiery William Lyon Mackenzie from Dundee as “that little tiger mayor”.
Back in Scotland, the Clearances continued. Those of Sutherland would become notorious for their brutality. Elizabeth Gordon, Countess of Sutherland (1765 – 1839) and her husband, the Marquis of
Stafford (later the first Duke of Sutherland) used their estate manager, James Loch, known as a “factor”, their lawyer, Patrick Sellar, close relative of the Countess of Sutherland, to do their dirty work. Some believe that the factors and their men burned down up to 2,000 crofts a day. Some families had lived in these thatched cottages for 500 years or more. In 1811 the Countess and her husband made more than 50 shepherds Justices of the Peace who could bring the law to bear on their crofters or “lotters” as they were called in Sutherland. One of the conditions such Justices of the Peace agreed to was to “clear” a set number of families annually.
Between the years 1811 and 1820, 15,000 inhabitants of this northern district were ejected from their snug inland farms by means for which we would seek in vain a precedent, except, perhaps, in the history of the Irish massacre.
Hugh Miller quoted in Mathilde Blind, The Heather on Fire. Kessinger Publishing, 2004, 72.
During medieval times in Rogart small scale farming occurred in almost every glen and people lived by a clan or feudal system. Small townships were found all around and people were subsistence farmers with economies relying on small black cattle – the original Highland cattle. The Clearances changed this way of life forever in the early and mid 1800s. People were cleared from the glens to make way for sheep which provided a much more profitable income for landlords.
History, County of Sutherland, Accessed October 12, 2005 http://www.countysutherland.co.uk/66.html
The Highland cattle that had been the mainstay of the crofters’ livelihood for centuries.
Life in the Highlands was in pieces as displaced people starved. Sheep grazed where, for centuries, the Leslies and others had farmed.
Young George Leslie saw all this. He never trusted the established elites as his father and forefathers had. He never wanted to be beholding to anyone and was never happy working for or in partnership with anyone. He rejected all attempts to force him to act or think against his will, living true to the Leslie motto, “Grip Fast”. He hated poverty and died as a wealthy man. Unlike those Leslies around him who were horribly maimed by their service in the Highland regiments, he never became a soldier, but was not a pacifist either.
Some like the Leslies emigrated in good ships with no one’s help, drawing on savings. Landlords paid the passage of others, including some who were given no choice, but thrown into hellship holds, bound hand and foot. Others from Rogart went to the Prairies to join a pioneering effort at what is now Winnipeg. Lord Selkirk recruited Highlanders from Rogart, Dornach, Kildonan and the area to join his proposed settlement in Canada.
My great-grandfather and grandmother became attached to the Selkirk settlement. They had a very bad time. They were to be disembarked at York Factory but dumped off at Churchill. My great-grandfather played the bagpipes during the march to York Factory to keep spirits up.
John G. Diefenbaker quoted in “Diefenbaker’s North, from TIMESPAN quoted in and accessed at http://www.electriccanadian.com/makers/diefenbaker.htm
The North West Company was a rival of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC’s). The North West Company worked with First Nations and Metis people damage HBC’s operations and wipe out Lord Selkirk’s settlement in Manitoba, Kildonan. The First Nations were rightly suspicious of the Scottish settlers fearing that British farms would eventually mean the end of the giant buffalo herds that all the Plains nations depended on. The Metis feared that they would be crowded out and their lands taken. At the Battle of the Seven Oaks, June 18, 1816, North West Company men and Metis attacked the Governor of the North West Company, killing him and 21 others.
Chief Peguis stayed to bury the dead, the rest escaped to the bush, fearing retribution. In 1821 the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company amalgamated, but Rogart men were not anxious to head for the farthest frontiers, preferring the relative safety and security of Nova Scotia and Ontario.
In 1814 Patrick Sellar began burning Strathnaver in Sutherland.
Patrick Sellar was charged of murder, but found not guilty. This modern publication pokes wry fun at the justice of two centuries before.
Strathnaver endured another clearance in 1819. A young stonemason, Donald MacLeod, was an eyewitness:
In 1819 John Beatty encouraged his sister Esther and her husband John Leslie to join him in Upper Canada where land was cheap and there were no lairds. They would have better farmland than the beautiful, stony fields of the Highlands where they were no longer wanted. Virtually all of the people who lived in Rogart were ‘cleared’ though not the Leslies although they were on the list to be cleared. These veterans of Waterloo and the Peninsular War had hoped they might be overlooked, but their houses were burnt around them, their stock sized and their belongings scattered. Homeless, thousands of Scots were on the move. In the 1820s the great Scottish migration into Canada began, as the Highland Clearances drove many off the land they had tilled for generations. By 1830 the Town of York’s population had grown to 2,860. By 1836 only thirty years later the population had more than tripled to 374,000. By 1841, it was 456,000. (C.C. James, History of Farming in Ontario, Toronto, 1914, 556-558.)
Young George Leslie had a skill and an interest that helped him and his family survive the Clearances. Since he was a child he had loved nature. As he grew into a young man, it was clear that gardening was his calling. When he left school at 16, he apprenticed as a gardener on Lord Anchorfield’s estate at Tarlogie, near Tain in Rosshire. He was an apprentice until 1822. He soon became known for his skill in landscaping. Young George was a hot commodity among the gentry who competed then, as now, for the best gardens. Lord Anchorfield put George Leslie in charge of the Arabella gardens where he worked until 1824.
He could have found work on the large estates of Scotland until he died, but he disliked the conservatism and the regimented hierarchical nature of Scottish society.
In 1824 his mother and step-father decided to join John Beatty, in Upper Canada. George, young, ambitious, and reform-minded, was glad to leave. On April 1, 1825 the Leslie sailed for Canada.
When the Island of Rum was cleared of all but one family in 1826, the year after the Leslies safely arrived in Streetsville, MacLean of Coll paid for his tenants to sail to Halifax in Canada on the “James”. Everyone on board caught typhus while at sea.
James Lock, the factor responsible for the Sutherland Clearances, lost no opportunity to blame the lotters, as the crofters of Sutherland were called, who would rather make whiskey illegally that gather kelp on the rocky seashore where he removed them to.
Scots in Toronto never forgot the horror of the clearances and almost 50 years later still donated money to help those who were still being cleared.
Globe, March 17, 1847 List of donors to aid the destitute in Scotland. The Highland was hit by the same blight that caused the Irish Potato Famine.
In 1851 Colonel Gordon of Cluny called his crofters to a meeting to talk about their rents. If they did not attend, they would be fined. Once they were inside the meeting hall, police overpowered, tied up, and loaded 1,500 tenants aboard ships bound for America.
Englishwoman Josephine Macdonell (nee Bennett) of Glengarry cleared Knoydart of the last of her crofters in 1853, forcibly evicting over 400 people from their homes. These included seniors and women in labour. If Catholic bishops can haunt, then the ghost of Alastair Mohr Macdonell haunted Mrs. Macdonell.
When men came to clear Strathcarron in Ross-shire in 1854, women blocked the road. The police attacked the women with truncheons, in what has been called The Massacre of the Ross Women”. Donald Ross was an eyewitness and said that the constables:
. . struck with all their force. . . . not only when knocking down, but after the females were on the ground. They beat and kicked them while lying weltering in their blood . . . . (and) more than twenty females were carried off the field in blankets and litters, and the appearance they presented, with their heads cut and bruised, their limbs mangled and their clothes clotted with blood, was such as would horrify any savage.
Quote accessed June 13, 2016 at http://www.tartansauthority.com/resources/the-highland-clearances/
When the landowners tried to recruit troops to fight for the Crown, as their fathers and grandfathers had done fifty years before, the Highlanders were far less than enthusiastic about going off to Crimea. One tenant said,
…should the Czar of Russia take possession of (these lands) next term, we couldn’t expect worse treatment at his hands than we have experienced in the hands of your family for the last fifty years.
Quote accessed June 13, 2016 at http://www.tartansauthority.com/resources/the-highland-clearances/
With typical lack of tact or perception, the Duke of Sutherland, when asked to raise more Highlanders for the war in Russia, sent factor James Loch into Sutherland to get volunteers. He was despised only less than Patrick Sellar and Lord and Lady Stafford themselves. After six weeks he returned with no volunteers. Donald Ross wrote of it:
“In Sutherland not one soldier can be raised. Captain Craigie, R.N., the Duke’s factor, a Free Church minister and a moderate minister, have been piping the days for volunteers and recruits; and yet, after many threats on the part of the factor, and sweet music on the part of the parsons, the military spirit of the poor Sutherland serfs could not be raised to fighting power. The men told the parsons
“We have no country to fight for! You robbed us of our country and gave it to the sheep. Therefore, since you have preferred sheep to men, let sheep defend you!”
Robert M. Gunn, The Tragic Highland Clearances, accessed June 14, 2016 at http://skyelander.orgfree.com/clear5.html
In 1854 the Highland Clearances officially ended although landowners continued to force people off their land for decades. In Canada “Rep by pop” threatened to break up the Reform Party, founded by Scots, including George Brown born in Alloa, Clackmannan, Scotland, James Lesslie from Dundee and George Leslie from Rogart. Reformers were known as “Grits” and they laid the foundations of the Liberal Party of Canada. The Grits attacked alleged governmental waste and corruption in railway schemes, especially in regard to the Grand Trunk Railway. Canada and the U.S. signed a Reciprocity Treaty, ensuring reduction of customs duties (June 6). The British North American provinces could now send their natural products (principally grain, timber, and fish) to the United States without tariff, while American fishermen are allowed into British North American fisheries. Augustin Morin and Sir Allan MacNab formed a political coalition secularized the Clergy Reserves, ended seigneurial tenure and laid the foundations for the future Conservative Party. In 1854 the Charge of the Light Brigade was a singularly stupid moment in British military history.
In November 1854, The Times war correspondent William Russell, writing from the Crimea, reported that an attack by Russian cavalry had been repulsed, having come up against a piece of ‘Gaelic rock… a thin red streak topped up with a line of steel’ – a description that would later become ‘the thin red line’. Russell was describing the heroic part played by the 93rd Highlanders in the Battle of Balaclava, probably better known as the occasion of the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade.
Quote accessed June 16, 2016 at http://www.military-history.org/regiment-profiles/the-93rd-highlanders-and-the-thin-red-line.htm
When Canada was borth with Confederation in 1867 our first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, was born in Glasgow, the son of Hugh Macdonald and Helen Shaw, from Kildonan, Sutherlandshire. His attitude towards adversity was one shared by other Scots:
When fortune empties her chamber pot on your head, smile and say, ‘We are going to have a summer shower.’
John A. Macdonald
Documentation suggests that between 1783 and 1881 170,571 landlords threw Highlanders being off their traditional lands. There may have been many more.
In 1930 St. Kilda in the Outer Hebrides was evacuated because the people there were so poor. The men in this picture do not even have shoes.
John Diefenbaker (1895-1979), the 13th Prime Minister of Canada was Prime Minister in office (21 June 1957 – 22 April 1963). He was descended from the Bannerman family who were forced to leave their home in Strath of Kildonan just outside Helmsdale in Sutherland during the Highland Clearances in 1813. They travelled to Canada and joined Lord Selkirk’s settlement of Kildonan on the Red River.
Diefenbaker later recalled:
“All that remains there today is the occasional ruin. The ruin of my great grandfather’s cottage is still to be seen and is not more than two or three feet high.
So if it hadn’t been for the Highland Clearances, the first and thirteenth Prime Ministers of Canada might not have been.”
MY HEART’S IN THE HIGHLANDSRobert “Rabbie” BurnsFarewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here;My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer;A-chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,My heart’s in the Highlands wherever I go.Farewell to the mountains high covered with snow;Farewell to the straths and green valleys below;Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods;Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here;My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer;A-chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,My heart’s in the Highlands wherever I go.
George Leslie’s birthplace, Rogart, Sutherlandshire and the deforested Highlands
Only the large country estates of the wealthy and the glens or valleys had trees in any significant amount. George Leslie loved trees and apprenticed to gardeners in Estates similar to this one. He hated the hierachy and conservatism of Scottish society and came to Peel County (now Mississauga and the Peel Region) in the mid-1820s with his family.
The Forests of Canada
The Leslie Log Cabin in Streetsville later moved to Mississauga Road. Built by George and Robert Leslie in 1826. Photo courtesy of Harold and Valada Leslie. It has since been restored and is now a City of Mississauga Museum.
Some of the places where George Leslie first worked gardening and planting trees when he came to York, Upper Canada
6 thoughts on “Highland Clearances”
Great compilation of evidence that will support my teaching of the Highland Clearances to my primary class.
An impressive account of the Clearances and persecution by the Anglos and their cronies.I visited Bad Bea near Helmsdale last year and Raitts model village at Newtonmore to experience the conditions of Highland life and disaster.
The Outlander TV series is accurate and intriguing and I look forward to the third series and whether the Clearances are dealt with.
I have never experienced persecution such as described here yet 3 generations later as a Leslie displaced from the Dornoch area I still feel some of the anger of those displaced by the clearances. I feel for the refugees of today as they are forced to flee their homes due to famine and strife.
It is amazing what they went through and how this uncomfortable history has been glossed over.
Great work. I live in Leslieville and am writing a novel on the subject. Thank you!